The details of Ralf Rangnick’s upcoming advisory role at Manchester United are still to be confirmed, but the interim manager’s beliefs on where the club should strengthen this summer could not be clearer.
Speaking to Sky Sports at the Red Devils’ Carrington base straight after a press conference where thorny topics about Louis van Gaal’s seeming vendetta against United and Nemanja Matic’s comments about camp morale were on the agenda, the 63-year-old seems far more at ease discussing how best to elevate his adopted club back into contention for silverware.
It is less than five months since he took the top job at Old Trafford, and had the league started that day United would be fourth in the Premier League. It will be seen as a relative success should they occupy that position come the final day of the season, which lays bare the scale of the task the next manager – and Rangnick in his next role – will have in bridging the gap to the Premier League summit.
“It’s obvious that something needs to be changed, something needs to be rebuilt in the summer,” he tells Sky Sports. “The team could do with some highly-talented, hungry players who really want to develop their own careers.
“I don’t think it should be that much about signing big names. I wouldn’t mind big names, but young big names. For me it’s important about being competitive, hungry, seeing a move to a club – and I have always believed this – not only as a big contract, a big-name club, but the next logical step in his career.
“If this happens, then you have a completely different level of motivation, aspiration, inspiration to play for whatever club that is. That should be the major target for the summer transfer window.”
Of course, if it were as simple as that, why wouldn’t every club do it? Rangnick’s answer involves patience and time, two commodities which football needs desperately but is often loathsome to grant. A good manager helps too. And one of the German’s oldest friends in the game is a shining example.
“Look at Liverpool,” he says. “When Jurgen Klopp came there five-and-a-half years ago it was early in the season, but they still finished eighth in the Premier League with a point average of about 1.6.
“They played in a European final but lost it, and from that summer transfer window onwards, if you compare the line-up from that final to now, there are a couple of players still there, Henderson and Firmino for example, but they added top signings in almost every transfer window. Players for whom that move would’ve been the next step – Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mane, Mo Salah.
“It shows it’s possible, but you need to have both the quality and process of recruitment and players plus the best possible manager.”
Who that next manager is has been, as everything is around United, a matter of fervent and protracted debate outside the club.
Inside it, Erik ten Hag has been spoken to this week, although Rangnick has been separate from internal discussions over his successor. “We haven’t had the time to speak about what will happen with regards to new players or a new manager,” he says when asked if his advisory role is any closer to being defined.
United will hope that appointment will be the one to take them back to the Premier League title, but before whoever is chosen takes the reins, Rangnick has been laying the groundwork ahead of his move upstairs at the end of the season.
Within days of his appointment in December he identified a leaky defence as his first hole to fill, and has since set about honing the balance to still give United the firepower needed to reach the Champions League next season.
That presents a challenge which is still very much a work in progress – and will be tested again when his side look to cut the gap to fourth against Leicester, live on Sky Sports Premier League on Saturday evening from 5pm.
He says: “After Christmas we focused to make sure the team was creating enough chances but since then we have had games like the FA Cup game against Middlesbrough, the home game with Watford and a few other games where we didn’t score enough goals from the opportunities we created.
“That’s why we have dropped too many points, eight draws in total in the league, and too many moments where we were 1-0 or even 2-0 up at Aston Villa and then ended up drawing.”
Fred may have a surprise role to play in improving United’s attacking output thanks to the new role given to him by Rangnick, who has tasked him with becoming a more creative figure in United’s midfield.
The manager considers him one of the most underrated players at Old Trafford, and seems puzzled why the forward-thinking aspects of his game have often been shackled since his move to Manchester.
“For me, he is an extremely valuable player, a team player in the true sense, a player who puts in every effort that he has and would give his last drop of blood for the team.
“He’s also a player who can score goals and has those surprising elements in his game, little flick-ons, and he can be a technical player too.
To reduce him to a number six, a defensive midfield player, does not rate him highly enough. He can do a lot more than just defend.
“That combination makes him extremely valuable, and to reduce him to only a number six, a defensive midfield player, does not rate him highly enough. He can do a lot more than just defend.”
One thing Rangnick will not be able to fix before the summer is the spotlight which surrounds himself, his players and the club. United are steeped in history and known the world over, and that will not change – and neither would he want it to.
But it does come with its own difficulties, with those Matic quotes the latest in a long line of he-said-she-said murmurings about the dressing room atmosphere.
Those ‘leaks’, if they are indeed genuine, are certainly a frustration for Rangnick who has never had to deal with a media storm on quite this level before. But four months in, it is something he feels he has a hold on, and lays the blame in part on the bloated squad he inherited when he first arrived at Old Trafford.
“I think any manager would wish these things didn’t exist, but you have to be aware what information is true and what isn’t,” he says. “I know the atmosphere in the dressing room between the players is good.
“Obviously, when you lose a game like the one against Atletico, it’s not good. But the same will be true of Anthony Elanga and Victor Lindelof after they lost against Poland – that’s football.
“Until Christmas, the size of the squad was too big and when you can only bring on three in every game, then you have some players who have almost no chance to get game time. They naturally won’t feel like they are important in the squad, and that’s the most frustrating thing that can happen.
“At times, the players or maybe even the people around them will put something out in the media. That’s normal, it’s not something unique for a club like Manchester United.
“But if you look at the top teams in Europe, England and abroad, they have 20 outfield players on around the same level, who could easily expect to play. If you are still competing in four competitions towards the end of a season, you need those 18, 20 players, two for each position, and you can rotate, plan ahead for the next three or four games.”
So there is Rangnick’s formula – right manager, right recruitment, right squad size. Could the glory days be heading back to Old Trafford sooner than we might think?
It is clear from the candidness of our 20-minute interview – including more than one request of “don’t quote me on that” – that when he says it could, he truly means it. “It all has to go hand in hand,” he explains. “It doesn’t make sense if things are not co-ordinated with each other. If that happens, why should it take too long?”
Watch Man Utd vs Leicester live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off at 5.30pm.